[Screen It]


(2015) (Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane) (R)

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Drama: An American screenwriter and other Hollywood figures must contend with being blacklisted and more for their involvement in the communist party during the mid 20th century.
It's 1947 and Dalton Trumbo (BRYAN CRANSTON) is a famous and successful screenwriter who works alongside the likes of legendary actor Edward G. Robinson (MICHAEL STUHLBARG). But Dalton, much like his fellow screenwriter friend Arlen Hird (LOUIS C.K.), is a communist. While that's okay with his non-communist wife Cleo (DIANE LANE) and their three kids, it's not okay with certain figures in Hollywood, including John Wayne (DAVID JAMES ELLIOTT) and actress turned formidable gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (HELEN MIRREN).

Her efforts help Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (JAMES DuMONT) and others of the House Un-American Activities Committee call Dalton and others to testify at a related hearing. That doesn't sit well with the smart-mouthed screenwriter whose refusal to give in to demands of naming others results in him serving time in prison. When he's released, his position on the Hollywood blacklist means no one will hire him. That is, except for feisty independent film producer Frank King (JOHN GOODMAN) who doesn't care about Dalton's politics as long as his scripts get turned into cheap movies that make money.

Proving that works while also penning other scripts but allowing others to take credit for his work, Dalton gets many who are on the black list work with King, all while employing Cleo and their children -- Niki (ELLE FANNING), Chris (MATTIE LIPTAK) and Mitzi (BECCA NICOLE PRESTON) -- to work as production aides for him. His hard working ways with little real time with family don't sit well with Niki, while rumors that he's anonymously working in Hollywood only further infuriate Hedda. Yet, it also draws the attention of the likes of actor Kirk Douglas (DEAN O'GORMAN) and director Otto Preminger (CHRISTIAN BERKEL) who separately want him to work on their projects.

Still facing scrutiny due to his beliefs, Dalton works to provide for his family, all while various forces work to derail his career.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While common sense would seem to dictate and indicate otherwise, screenwriters are often at or near the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder of importance. Unlike playwrights who wield far greater influence and have complete control of every word of their scripts, screenwriters are often viewed as necessary evils.

While the likes of Aaron Sorkin can call the shots, I imagine the following isn't that uncommon in the studios of past and present: "Okay, I guess we need a story or something for this film. Somebody find me a hack, pressure them to deliver in a week, and then remove all of their rights to the material. And when it fails after we've butchered it, everyone will blame the writer. Brilliant!"

Okay, maybe it's not quite so callous -- or is it? -- but despite their utmost importance in the filmmaking process, such scribes often get the short shrift. Of course, being dragged in front of a congressional hearing for being a "commie," sent off to prison, being blacklisted from working in Hollywood, and then having to work anonymously while others collect your awards in their name would only rub salt into such wounds, yes?

Well, that's exactly what happened to Dalton Trumbo during the 1950s when he was part of the notorious sounding Hollywood Ten and still managed to win Academy awards for "Roman Holiday" (with Ian McLellan Hunter fronting for him) and "The Brave One" (under the pseudonym Robert Rich). His tale involving that and more now comes to the big screen in the simply titled "Trumbo."

Featuring an award-worthy performance by Bryan Cranston as the title character, the film spans the years of 1947 to 1958 in the writer's life, with a brief epilogue of sorts taking place twelve years later. In the core part of the film, screenwriter John McNamara -- adapting Bruce Cook's biography "Dalton Trumbo" -- delves into the man's politics, mindset, work ethic and the witch hunt -- both in Hollywood and D.C. -- that tried to ruin him.

Director Jay Roach keeps things moving along at a decent clip (sometimes including what appears to be real newsreel or other footage from the era) and shows what such attacks did to the man, his career, and his family (where Diane Lane plays his wife and Elle Fanning plays their oldest teenage daughter).

Beyond Cranston, supporting performances are good from those two ladies, as well as Louis C.K. as another blacklisted writer; John Goodman as a feisty and bigger than life producer of cheap films; Helen Mirren as powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; Dean O'Gorman as actor Kirk Douglas; and Christian Berkel as director Otto Preminger.

While the dialogue isn't always as brilliant as one might expect for a film about a notable Hollywood screenwriter -- although McNamara occasionally gets in some fun lines -- the plot proceeds through an engaging story arc of success, dilemma and obstacles, hitting rock bottom and then rising up again from the ashes.

I like that Cranston keeps the character prickly rather than portray him as a likeable or saintly martyr. At the same time, however, he makes him intriguing and charismatic enough that we're easily engaged with and intrigued by his journey from start to finish.

Yet another film this award season that shows how power and single-minded ideology can get out of hand -- both in the past and now the present -- "Trumbo" is an important and well-made film that's worth seeing. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 4, 2015 / Posted November 25, 2015

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